In honor of Mother's Day, we're unearthing Heirloom Recipes and memories from our community members' moms all week.
My mom’s amazing Pasta e Fagioli served as the inspiration for many of my own recipes—all you have to do is glance at my recipes to see that practically every one of them references, or was somehow influenced by, my mother's dish. She was well-known for it. If you ask my family about my mom's signature dish, you bet they'll say Pasta e Fagioli.
Pasta e Fagioli is a simple soup of beans and pasta (it originated from Italian peasant food), but my mom worked hard to perfect it. Her devotion to a perfect Pasta e Fagioli was likely due to her background as a recipe developer and the fact that she is an instinctual cook and total perfectionist in the kitchen. It would sometimes take her years before she got a recipe just right, but when she did, it was glorious (with the exception of my childhood nemesis, liver and onions).
Left: My mother and me with our English Pointer, Rodney. Right: My mother, at the head of the table, sits with our family.
My mom was not Italian by birth—she was French, Scottish, and Irish, if you’re curious—but she married into an Italian-American family (my father was first-generation). After learning the basics of Italian cooking from my her sisters-in-law, my mom, a competent cook, found that Italian cooking came naturally.
When I was young, I loved watching my mom cook Italian dishes (and still do). I would stand by her in the kitchen as she carefully made homemade pasta, which would find its way into the bubbling broth of Pasta e Fagioli. Her hands worked quickly and deftly—I could never believe how thin and uniform she got her noodles. The hours I spent in the kitchen with her taught me not only how to develop recipes but how to love and appreciate good food. Her golden rule, which I follow to this day, was this: Make simple, well-prepared meals with fresh ingredients and they will be as timeless as they are delicious.
While my family has made a star out of my mother’s simple Pasta e Fagioli, some of my favorite memories of childhood were the nights when my mom would make breakfast for dinner starring pancakes and fried eggs. My mom would pull out her worn, red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, and whip up a batch of pancakes for supper. The pancakes were fluffy and light, and she always put two on my plate topped with an over-easy egg fried in bacon fat. Finally, she'd heat up a mix of maple syrup and butter and pour it over the top. If you have never enjoyed a stack of pancakes like this, you must give it a try—it’s amazing.
To this day I still make the food I grew up eating—both the pancakes and the Pasta e Fagioli. One of my favorite things to do is call up my mom and share recipes—we love to talk food. (Could you tell?) Honestly, it took me months, maybe years, to coax her recipe for Pasta e Fagioli—or as she calls it, Pasta Fazool—out of her. Lucky for me, and you, her recipe is easy to recreate. And for dessert, no ode to my mom would be complete without Tender Yellow Cake. Needless to say she knows a thing or two about baking, too! Happy Mother's Day!
1 1/4 cups dried white beans
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 piece salt pork (the size of a deck of cards, as my mom would say)
8 cups water
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
One 28-ounce can whole Italian tomatoes, blended until smooth
4 to 5 basil leaves, divided
28 ounces water (use the can the tomatoes came in to measure out)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 to 3 cups raw spaghetti
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano cheese, to serve
Family photos are from Suzanne Debrago; pancakes by James Ransom